Women are badasses. Women are survivors. We take the shittiest circumstances and turn them into our greatest advantages, often without realizing it. We are so used to just doing it, to handing on and hanging in, that when the world around us crumbles, we manage, and we do it with grace and aplomb.
I got news today that I passed the exam to become an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. The journey to this moment has been long and challenging: 4 years, returning to school, 14 required academic courses, 90 hours of lactation education, and 1000 clinical hours. Then, and ONLY then, could I sit for the test.
I’ve worked my ass off. Studying night and day. Taking an Anatomy class over 8 weeks in the summer to accelerate, which I would never recommend to anyone with an ounce of sanity. Countless weekends at the hospital I now work for as a peer counselor for WIC, being paid crumbs as an independent contractor. Time away from my family, time I couldn’t lavish on myself. I was finally able to register last September to sit for the exam in April of this year.
I began studying right away. Reviewing power points of modules, starting a 906-page curriculum guide, as well as another text that was 966 pages. And, of course, the visual guide that I had to inhale because half of the exam is usually questions based on photographs. I worked full time, generally 42-45 hours a week. I volunteered to plan and coordinate events for the dance department at my kids’ high school to raise funds for summer scholarships. And then I traveled to Kentucky in November for my first graduate school residency, which I felt I could no longer put off without giving up on that dream, where I was expected to return home and write 50 pages of creative material and essays every three weeks.
Despite all that craziness, I felt like I could do it, because I had a spouse who supported me. Then on Christmas Eve, my marriage fell apart like a rag doll who had seen too much rain. And I found myself not only immersed in all these overly ambitious commitments, but also looking for a new home, navigating custody, and preparing for my sister’s wedding in March where myself and my children were all part of the bridal party. And doing it alone, without the person I had considered my best friend for 10 years, and with whom I could barely hold a conversation lasting more than four sentences.
The pressure was so great at times, that I would pretend to need something at a store just so I could sit in my car and fucking cry. Not just sliding tears, but rivulets, moaning, and feeling like everything I had built in my life was slowly crashing down around me and I was powerless to stop it. It was the most crushing and dark time I had experienced in years, and it took me everything to keep it together most days so I didn’t look like a complete, exhausted mess in front of my children, who were constantly asking me if I was okay. I hated the notion that I could make their already stressed and confused lives worse because I was falling apart from the inside out.
I was fortunate to know strong women going through similar circumstances whom I could lean on, share, and vent. They propped me up when I couldn’t walk, and they carried me through the wreckage of my marriage, and got me safely to a place where I no longer felt it was the center of my life.
I threw myself into everything else just to stay afloat. I wrote a 60-page television pilot that I’m extremely proud of. I helped raise $7000 to give to students so they could attend summer dance intensives. I got my kids to school or dance on time, and I found a place to live where we could settle in peace and begin to rebuild.
But studying for the exam was so fucking hard. I couldn’t sit still, and my mind would wander, swirling the words of the text as I was carried off by some thought of something else I had to do that was more interesting, or pertinent. I would think of my dead marriage, my husband, and try to rewind the past 10 years in my mind to understand how the fuck I ended up a single mother of four at 40. It felt like nothing was sticking, and my mind was a sieve.
When all six of us went on a planned-for-over-a-year family vacation for my sister’s wedding in March, I thought I could use the down time from work to study and read. But I couldn’t stand to be in the hotel in D.C., staying in the same room with my former husband, who made it feel like speaking to me was an act of torture. It was excruciating. I found things to do at night with my teenagers, exploring Georgetown and P Street. By the time we got to Pittsburgh for the second half of the trip, and we went our separate ways for several days, I was emotionally vacant, and just wanted to sleep the nightmare away. After a few days, I was finally able to settle enough to power through some reading, and finish one book.
We returned to Santa Fe after the wedding on a Monday. I finished moving out that week, and that same Sunday, I drove to Albuquerque to spend the night to make sure I would arrive for my exam at 8:00am sharp the following morning. In the hotel, I crammed as much as I could in, staying up much later than I planned, and waking earlier than expected, because my nerves refused to settle. I arrived at the test center shaking, my stomach slowly sliding into the ground, because I had no adrenal support left to prop me up. They took away my sweater, which was my only comfort, and after an exhaustive set of rules, led me back to a room of computers with ten other people busily working on various tests. I almost threw up on the kind lady who explained how to begin the $660 exam that I was positive in that moment I was going to flop, which terrified the overachiever in me. After all, my marriage had suffered a slow, painful defeat. Why would this be any different? Was I not just a very competent failure who put on a brave face to the world when things were rotting at its core?
As the exam progressed, I couldn’t tell how well I was doing. I often felt I maybe got a question right, but with some there were multiple possibilities. Was I using enough reason, and being deductive? Or was I simply fucking up what felt like the one area of my life where I thought I had managed to keep it together the most?
Of the five other women who sat for the test, I was the first to finish. I walked out into the sunshine and speed walked to my hotel so I could throw on a swimsuit and immerse myself in the indoor pool. I wanted nothing more than to float, feel the room fill with silence, and have a mere thirty minutes where the world demanded nothing of me because I had run out of anything to give.
I’ve been sweating these results since I took the test on April 3rd. Worrying. Terror. The certification is a requirement for my current job, which I love. If I didn’t pass, what the fuck would I do? When I got the message today, I stared at it for five minutes without moving. It felt surreal. I was so convinced of my failure that I had not dared to dream what would happen if I passed.
So now, I can call myself an IBCLC. I can work across the globe in various capacities. I will be licensed by the state of New Mexico. I have officially achieved this great, wild, wonderful thing that I worked myself to the bone to attain. I somehow, and somewhere, pulled out this Amazonian capacity to persist when barely able to rise. I took the biggest fucking lemons the universe could throw at me, and during a moment I still can’t pinpoint, decided I would make the most amazing lemonade I could possibly muster. I survived an unforeseen moment in time that shattered my world and left me the impossible task of gluing it back together.
So, I’ve decided that when people ask me what an IBCLC stands for, I will tell them I’m an International Badass Certified Lactation Counselor. I get to own what I have accomplished on my terms after despair, heartache, and loneliness tried relentlessly to convince me I wasn’t worthy. Because this achievement has been the longest and hardest to gain, and I am crazy proud of myself. But mostly, it just sounds so fucking good.
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